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Their frontman is the son of rock's poet laureate, their first album was a royal flop, and their return was greeted with indifference by the music industry. And yet, the Wallflowers have persevered, climbing their way to the Top 10 and getting two Grammy nominations. Now, after a long, stony silence, Jakob Dylan tells us how it feels.
Some have come here for the grabby, impressionist lyrics. Others are finding poetry in the lead singer's eyes.
"Go get 'em, Jake!" "Wallflowers rule!"
Tonight the dance floor at Boston's Avalon ballroom scans 20s -- and the crowd is very vocal. It's a mixed bag: practical Polartec, flannel remnants, preening clusters of this week's Stussy shirts. Along the stage apron, pale-painted lips mouth lyrics just burnished double platinum. The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse has been a bit slow out of the gate, released last May and breaking the Top 10 just this March.
That'll happen to a "new" band like the one Jakob Dylan has been fronting and retooling for more than half a decade. He has been singing the album's first hit single, "6th Avenue Heartache," since 1991.
"Hi. I'm Jakob . . . uhhh . . . Seger!"
The reference to elder rocker Bob Seger is a wee joke, aimed perhaps at the pair of graying, bearded gents in Grateful Dead T-shirts who have slipped in amid the kids to sneak a peek at Bob Dylan's boy. Such '60s ghosts used to materialize in greater numbers at early Wallflowers gigs, bleating through their sweet hemp clouds, "Play 'All Along the Watchtower,' man!" But much of tonight's audience has no idea who Jakob's father is; everyone I've talked to couldn't care less: Bob Dylan's just a guy in my social-studies book.
So handsome, with those sharp Armani shoulders, the startling, Samoyed-blue eyes, that cool, funky hat destined to become a video talisman . . .
"Jaaaaaykob! Tell it!"
What the recordmen don't know, the little girls understand. Jakob Dylan is a young man of certain passion, singing his own words with a shy, fitful intensity that seems, sometimes, to take him out and above this big, hot room. It's not the raspy, unremarkable voice so much as the delivery that draws them, some strain of the ageless troubadour DNA that goosed vestal virgins in the shadows of Stonehenge. It moved singer Sam Phillips, wife of songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett, to pull the Wallflowers' tape out of the pile of petitioning demos sent to her husband, drop it into the deck and tell T-Bone, "Listen. This guy's dead honest."
T-Bone heard it, too, something cleaner, more astringent than the self-pitying wallows that have gushed forth post-grunge. Burnett, a respected musician who had barnstormed with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in '75, knew Jakob as a child but had never heard his adult voice. The songs needed work; the band hadn't quite jelled. But Burnett agreed to produce the Wallflowers because he heard three or four real, big, honest-to-God songs in there -- and, damn, the kid was no complainer. "I don't believe Jakob ever begs for love," Burnett has told me. "He doesn't do all those unattractive things that so many of our current crop of stars do -- whine and beg for love at the camera. Or do vocal tricks. He just tells the truth really straight."
"Alone tonight in somebody's bed/she's gone and dyed her hair red. . . ."
Jakob is painting the dusky tableau that opens "Three Marlenas" a bit briskly tonight. He's already sweating through his trademark black shirt, speeding to get his set in before the ballroom turns into a house-music pumpkin. "That's right, ladies and gentleman," he says, "this place becomes a disco at exactly 10." Already, an aggrieved-looking DJ is fussing around the booth. "It just kills the rock bands!" Jakob lectures, mock seriously. "We're a dying breed. Make a call to your city council."
Some nights, Jakob doesn't talk at all onstage, but right now he's working up to an uncharacteristic rant. He and the band are bone tired in the midst of a merciless string of one-nighters, and just a bit sick, this evening, of the tyranny of commerce. Club management has been adamant about getting the group on and off ASAP. Never mind that last night, the Wallflowers were at Madison Square Garden as double-Grammy nominees, that Bringing Down the Horse is about to spin off its third single, "The Difference" (following the hits "6th Avenue Heartache" and "One Headlight").
Just last week in Montreal, Beatles-like screaming broke out in the crowd every time Jakob stepped to the mike. After the show, hundreds waited in a raging snowstorm just to see the band leave.
Tonight is a sobering reminder: Even boys with a bullet get those disco-nite blues. But the Wallflowers are all loose and laughing onstage, still not believing their current good fortune. This is a five-man band that came together only after Bringing Down was recorded in 1994-95 with a shifting cast of studiomen and special guests (including Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and, yes, Sam Phillips).
It wasn't so long ago that the Wallflowers learned to play the songs from the record together in rehearsal halls and on the road. They figured out how to be a band while opening for Chris Isaak ("Hey, we're the Wallflowers, and look for our album in . . . uh . . . five months!"). They're still washing their own socks, still need to cram everything -- equipment, luggage, egos -- into one groaning, generic tour bus. Luxury is a midnight carton of Hunan bean curd delivered to the hissing bus door.
By any standards, it has been a grueling apprenticeship. But they asked for it. When Interscope Records' Tom Whalley negotiated the Wallflowers' contract, he was surprised by the precise calculation of the guaranteed tour support that their manager, Andy Slater, insisted on. Slater seemed to know exactly the number of weeks to keep the Wallflowers on the road to let the MTV kids see them live and unpixilated, to feel the sweat fall on their Doc Martens. "I give Jake credit for not getting out there -- TV and all -- too early," says Whalley. "He stayed out, getting the band real tight. It's one of the smartest things they've done."
So far, the worst side effects are the circles beneath the frontman's eyes. This, Jakob explains, is a result of insomnia brought on by chronic back problems -- made worse by the narrow, Spartan bunks on the bus. "So it hurts," he says, shrugging. "I'll live."
We don't want to wax too seriously scriptural here, but didn't the Jacob of Genesis 28 -- in exile over birthright issues -- lay his head on a stone pillow and dream of a ladder to heaven? And wasn't his 20-year odyssey home necessitated by a troublesome blessing from his kingly father, Isaac? True, a beer-and-urine-stinking dressing room in Raleigh, N.C., may not be the rocky plains of Paddan-Aram. And, surely, rising chart positions aren't always the stairway to salvation. But this Jakob has long found refuge in the nomadic life, has cast his lot with small but loyal tribes in mall-studded hinterlands. In the strangest places, he's encountered kids with T-shirts from the band's earliest incarnation.
"The one thing that's always worked for us is the road," Jakob says over and over. It's tried them, honed them, sustained them -- barely. But just now, racing the clock like this when, damn it, you've finally got fans, kids who want more . . .
"Disco sucks!" bellows a husky partisan in a Bruins jersey. A lacy, burgundy-colored bra floats onstage. Then -- thunk! -- a yellowed, dogeared paperback of Lolita lands at the scuffed toes of Jakob's black brogans. He looks puzzled, a bit concerned. How could anyone out there guess his fondness for Nabokov? Could they possibly know that he can read a page of the old reprobate's lush prose and see a half-dozen songs fly out of it? Round midnight, sitting in the darkened back lounge of the Wallflowers' rolling bus, Jakob Dylan will wonder aloud: "Where are they getting their information? How?"
At bottom, this is a story about the freedoms and tyrannies of knowing. About how Information is transmitted, instinctively, from father to son. From songwriter to listener. From public myth to private memory, and back. This is where, after years of resolute silence, Jakob Dylan has begun to decide which parts of his remarkable childhood are his to discuss. He must wrestle with how best to present himself without disrespecting his father's 30-year insistence on privacy. Until now, throughout scores of maddeningly oblique interviews, Jakob points out, "You won't find one where I've said the words my dad."
He will say now that Dad was dead set against this whole thing. Bob Dylan feared for his youngest child, whose birth (in 1969), it's long been rumored, moved him to write the lovely classic "Forever Young." In advising against a rock & roll life, the wily revolutionary sounded like any concerned parent: Why this? It's a terrible life, a disposable job. You could get kicked around.
Hadn't his father given Jakob the necessary Information? Hadn't he shown all five of his children firsthand the rigors and hoodoo of the road? They all came out with him for years -- beautiful, long-lashed children playing tag amid the amps. They felt the road's brutal toll when their parents' marriage crashed and burned. Only Jakob went back out -- alone. And for seven years, in an anonymous knit cap, he plied the teeming rock wilderness of Los Angeles like any demo-toting pilgrim, playing in garages, delis and dives, refusing to identify himself to club owners, forbidding promoters to mention . . . Him.
Breaking this almost ritual silence will prove a hard go, requiring several long conversations in several cities. Every now and then, with the Sony snapped off and amiable small talk warming the room, Jakob will lean over, half-apologetic, with a blurted disclaimer: "Look, do I think people are curious about growing up with one of the most influential minds of the 20th century? Of course I do. Am I confident I can get it right? Shit, no."
He knows he is negotiating this in the most perilous of times: the Information Age. He winces when the most unflattering fan-snapped candids of his weary late-night mug whiz through laser printers and get tacked to teen walls. He's not thrilled that his most convoluted early lyrics are readily downloadable. Worse, the family demons have sprouted worldwide wings. A media trickster who used to sign himself the Scavenger, notorious since the late '60s as Bob Dylan's longtime scourge, has now added a Web site to his obsessional oeuvre.
Information -- true or imagined -- is the favored cudgel of a man so craven that he invented celebrity "garbology," raiding the metal trash cans outside the Greenwich Village house Jakob was born into, in New York. The Scavenger became the ubiquitous jackal of MacDougal Street, terrorizing Jakob's mother, Sara, and the older children, organizing group howls beneath the family's windows at night, rummaging in the bins to make off with loving notes from the children's grandma. Public, publishable information, he claims.
And now, like some howling ancestral curse, he has descended, fangs dripping, upon the son. The Scavenger has boasted that he rooted through baby Jakob's soiled Pampers. And a quarter-century later, he tosses up more alleged flotsam of that infancy, online, offering photo negatives of Bob feeding his baby boy a bottle, pouring venomous supposition into tracts he calls "Analysis of Jakob Dylan's Poetry."
Such are the boons and burdens of celebrity birthright. Is it any wonder, then, that when Jakob's seventh-grade class turned to the section in the social-studies book on the '60s, where his father's face and name came up beside those of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Beatles, the shy, skinny Dylan boy asked for the bathroom key and disappeared? For so long, everybody had their information. And very little of it matched Jakob's.
"The notion of any myth about my father, all that curiosity . . . that stuff existed outside my house," Jakob is saying. "We didn't really hear a lot of that information. Looking back on it, I think it's pretty surprising that we didn't feel it more."
Whatever the picture we outsiders had, nobody seems ready to believe that Jakob could have turned out . . . normal. He says, "I get asked all the time, 'What was your dad like as a parent?' And I say, 'I'm 27 years old; I'm not a crackhead; I don't go on afternoon talk shows and spill.' I mean, you can probably figure it out for yourself that he did a decent job."
We are sitting in a chilly, glaringly lit side room at the Avalon. Jakob has begun by sweetly warning me of his miserable media rap sheet. He says that at his first record label -- Virgin, which produced The Wallflowers, their debut album, in 1992 -- and with much of the press, he has had a reputation as an uncooperative, close-mouthed, brooding pain in the butt. Even now he looks well-shuttered: hands jammed into a bulky green Army-type jacket, knit cap pulled down to his eyebrows.
Jakob says he is ready to talk because, "Now I actually have a job. I have something to stand on." He also has a family (his wife, Paige, and their toddler son), a muscular, cohesive band, an enviable chart position (No. 4 at this writing), 22 performable songs of his own, more works in progress, the two Grammy nominations (both for "6th Avenue Heartache") and at least a half-dozen chattering-fan Web sites.
Famous fans surface daily. Giorgio Armani keeps sending Jakob clothes, inviting the band to glittering soirees. Jim Carrey is twisting his Flubber face into Jakob impersonations on MTV; Howard Stern elicited a command performance from the Wallflowers for his vaunted favorite-bands birthday bash. Bookers for Letterman, Leno, Saturday Night Live, Rosie O'Donnell and Jenny McCarthy just gotta have Jake.
Out on the road, stars have begun to twinkle at VIP tables and in walk-ons. In February, when the Wallflowers opened for Sheryl Crow at Manhattan's Roseland, Carly Simon skipped onstage to duet with Jakob on "You're So Vain." The night's all-star encore (including Crow and Emmylou Harris) offered one goose-bump moment for those of us in the critics' corner creaky enough to recall the Dylan/ Band tours. It came when a silver-haired Levon Helm, the Band's drummer of legend, ambled out with a mandolin and traded verses on his classic "The Weight" with the Dylan boy he had known as a toddler. For a time, the Band had been Bob Dylan's band. And this was a small, affecting torch-passing that drew roars from the sold-out, oxygen-deprived congregation -- including Bruce Springsteen, who sat in the dark clapping and shaking his head.
After seven years, it seems to Jakob that an awful lot has happened in a scant few months. Just hours ago he was in Manhattan as a slightly dazed Grammy nominee. As a presenter, he'd had a deer-in-the-headlights air about him. But today, having failed to bring home the hardware, he's downright cheerful. He says he doesn't mind losing, because he was so surprised just to get nominated. And later, when the Wallflowers hit the record-company parties around town, all the Suits -- the guys who wouldn't even let their secretaries return manager Andy Slater's calls two years ago -- were glad-handing like mad.
Looking back, Jakob realizes that there was enough to mark him as a plague carrier in a very skittish industry: "Not only did my group have a reputation for being difficult, we had a [first] record out that commercially stiffed. That was odd. A person in my position putting out a record that stiffs? It must have really been a piece of crap. We sold 40,000 or something. I was not unique to anybody anymore. I was a joke."
At Virgin, the bottom line was no laughing matter. "I wouldn't have gone a million dollars in the hole with the Wallflowers -- and that's about what it came to -- if we didn't believe in Jakob," says Jeff Ayeroff, who, with his partner, Jordan Harris, signed the band to Virgin (both have since landed at Sony Music). "Jordan and I didn't expect to sell even 200,000 copies. We always felt that it was the second record that would be Jakob's breakout."
Just what was the first one? "It was a good record," says Ayeroff. "But it was intended as the smudge-pot room of Indian ritual -- you know, when you fill the room with smoke to clear off the spirits."
In Jakob's case, the jinni was a monster. "The kid was freaked," says Ayeroff. "He was paralyzed by the dad thing, but clearly burning, possessed to get out and do his own."
A&R men may have the patience to wait for things to shake out. Promo men do not. As the record faltered, it was hoped that a few well-placed "son of" interviews could goose things along, but young Jake wouldn't play. "The company wasn't sympathetic to the fact that there was just no damned story at that time," Jakob says. "What are we going to talk about -- my string of hits? I'd say, 'If it doesn't bother you too much, I'd rather not talk to Hard Copy.' Then I got perceived as kind of a jerk."
Dylan's kid. Feisty as the old man, too good to make nice around the office and at radio stations. Jakob says he was simply too damned scared. He'd made the record when he was 21, and he went out on tour soon afterward. Though he'd been on the road with musicians of legend before he could say "Highway 61," he had no idea how to do it in a band. He was still so unsure of his own rhythm-guitar playing that he trained those pale-blue eyes on his fret work instead of on the paying customers.
His Garbo act wore thin with management. And, once his protectors Ayeroff and Harris left Virgin, Jakob realized that he hadn't bothered to make any other allies up and down the corridors. "All the flak I got at Virgin was that I wasn't friendly enough," he says. "And I guess I wasn't. I wanted to be left alone."
He says the split with the label was mutual but that it was generally perceived that the Wallflowers had been dropped. All around L.A., other musicians offered their sympathies, with Cheshire-cat smiles. "My friends were saying, 'Aw, you guys are over,'" Wallflowers keyboard player Rami Jaffee told me. Jaffee kept his jobs delivering pizzas and playing the odd gig with L.A. underground personality El Vez, the Mexican Elvis.
Other band personnel came and went, impatient with the Wallflowers' tenuous fortunes. Jakob, who had tried art school for four months after high school, hadn't gone to college and had no other job skills, kept at the only work he knew. "I never felt defeated by it," he says. "It was almost comforting at that point. I spent a year putting this group back together, writing more songs."
During the worst of it, Jakob was not about to complain to Dad. "He was one of the original people to get screwed in this business, to win again, get screwed again," says Jakob. "It's not like I can say, 'No, you don't understand.' Most kids can say that when their dad's a farmer and they want to race motorcycles. That was never available to me."
So, like so many restless American sons, Jakob says, "I went ahead and did it. I knew his information was right. I knew that it was a bad idea. It's obviously a good time now, and I really like doing it. But I was aware of stepping into the fire."
He laughs, then reminds me that there have always been signs that Bob Dylan considered the singer/songwriter mode a stinko way to earn a living: "It's a job he's tried to get out of many times, if you look back -- in '66." Jakob is referring to his father's infamous motorcycle accident. Squabbling Dylanologists have put forth countless theories on the severity (or lack) of Dylan's injuries. But the point, says Jakob, is that Dylan needed out. Bad.
Here is the information his son took from it: "It's a ruthless job. It's a job no sane person really wants. He tried to get out of it when he was on top of the world. After his accident he didn't tour for eight years. He was obviously drawn back because of the music. And once you get a certain age, you have trades you know how to do. That's how you're going to support yourself."
Not that Jakob has ever seen his father capitulate or do anything . . . conventional. Take Bob Dylan's current work mode, for example. Though he is wealthy, his children grown, though he is sitting on a song catalog that could wipe out a sizable chunk of Third World debt, Bob is back on the road in a very low-key way.
All spring, father and son crisscrossed the country separately, playing modest venues: college auditoriums, civic centers, local festivals. One notable divergence: The April night that the Wallflowers were beamed to 57 million homes across the country on the VH1 Honors show, Bob Dylan was tuning up at the University of New Hampshire, in tiny Durham. "He just likes to play," says Jakob. "He's out there. He'd rather keep it simple."
As this story went to press, both Dylans had just played the Beale Street Music Festival, in Memphis, Tenn., on the same weekend (though on different nights) in early May. This does not mean that they're passing one another in different directions up or down that ladder. If you think so, Jakob warns, you are guilty of a foolish cultural myopia that has long plagued this country: We don't know what to make of artists who have the audacity to outlive their own revolutions.
"They want you to give it up fast, and crash and burn," says Jakob. "It's no joke. Everybody knows the best way to be a legend is just die. Elvis, James Brown, my dad -- they didn't lose it. I don't believe you lose it. But people don't know what to do with you."
Nor have we developed any protocol for addressing the sons of American legends. Certainly that birthright qualifies one for the tabloids and a guaranteed place in the paparazzi's cross hairs. But it won't necessarily buy you a record deal. Given the stakes these days, even some of the most shortsighted quick-buck A&R types are apt to growl: Where the hell is Julian Lennon? Chynna Phillips?
Interscope's Whalley says that he gave the Wallflowers extra-harsh scrutiny before he signed them, in 1994. "The Dylan name was widely perceived as a negative," he says. "There were so many eyes on him. If he couldn't live up to other people's expectations, it could be a real disaster."
Jakob had felt the pressure long before other industry men voiced their doubts. "Absolutely, I think the name worked against me," Jakob says. "And I actually found some kind of power in that. I still do. I do not mope, and I do not complain. I've driven my own path here, and I'm on it, and it's fine. But if people think it must be easy . . ."
He is laughing again, wondering aloud why so few people seem curious about his album's title. "That's what it felt like for three years trying to make this damned thing," he says. "It was like trying to pull down a horse."
As the Avalon's disco ball starts turning, the guitars are being handed down the narrow aisle of the Wallflowers' bus amid no small chaos. Outside, in the mammoth shadow of Fenway Park, patchouli-scented clusters of self-proclaimed Flowerheads -- lots of little girls in big, clunky shoes -- surround the band's unmarked motor coach.
"What's going on in the bus . . ." Jakob is telling me, "we'd kind of rather you didn't see it."
He stands, rubbing scarlet lipstick off his cheek. Hungrily, he scrutinizes the evening's rider -- that ubiquitous tray of cold cuts, spongy bread, chips and salsa. As Jakob slaps together a sandwich, Rami Jaffee leans over to whisper: "I mean, maybe you don't have to report all this . . . deep weirdness."
I can see his point. There is nothing more damaging to a band's image than the substance lurking in an aluminum pan on the counter. It's kugel, a k a Jewish noodle pudding. Sweet, tasty and possessing a specific gravity rivaling those of the heaviest elements -- plutonium comes to mind -- tonight's dose has been cooked up by Jaffee's cousin, who lives nearby. Aunts, uncles and cousins are crammed into the lounge, urging band members to take hits off the tray. "Eat! You're too skinny, Jake!"
The Wallflowers won't be voted World's Most Dangerous Band. Jaffee's lovely, leggy wife, Alicia, is on board. She is pregnant with their first child, and keyboard paternity leave has been arranged for August. Jaffee, who plays the Hammond B3 organ and piano, is the only long-term Wallflower, dating back to Jakob's days playing the Kibitz Room at Canter's Deli, in L.A. Jaffee's friendship is a mighty anchor; his keyboards bring well-placed leavening to the rootsy, lyric-hugging arrangements and the live act.
Ascetic lead guitarist Michael Ward is the band's Mystic Figure. He's so unobtrusive, he nearly drifts into the wings sometimes, a man as polite and self-contained as his riffs are sharp and aggressive. Ward signed on with the stipulation that an extra bunk be reserved for his traveling companion, a sleek, curvaceous racing bike. His true devotion shows -- Ward is a compact, ergonomic wonder, hairless but for a chin wisp, with leg muscles you could bounce a quarter off. He does up to 60 miles a day between gigs, often leaving a hotel at dawn to meet up with his band mates down the road.
Greg Richling went to high school with Jakob; they jammed together in friends' garages but went their separate ways until a few years back, when the revamping Wallflowers were combing L.A. for a bass player. Tall, gangly Mario Calire summons amazing grace behind his drum kit. He has been playing since second grade, often jamming with his rock-musician father, who, like the most exacting sports dad, would let the kid sit in with better and better players to see if he could keep pace. Calire lives with his parents, still has the curling lashes and untroubled brow of a Titian archangel. Tonight he looks a bit stunned when a vacuum-packed blonde climbs onstage, coaxes the mike from Jakob and introduces the drummer breathily: "Maaahhh-rio. Ooh!"
As the bus rumbles through closely shuttered Boston, Jaffee, Richling and I repair to the back lounge. Jakob has dragged a quilt up front and burrowed beneath it; only a few black curls are visible in the passing flicker of interstate lamps. He's asleep within seconds.
"Jake loves playing music; he likes writing songs," Richling is saying. "No one wants to believe it's that simple." This Richling knows from the days he and Jakob attended the Windward school, in Los Angeles. The Dylan kids were living in Beverly Hills with their mother. And for a while, the coolest place to mess around with music was at their friend Eric Grossman's house. There would come bony, tousle-headed, 15-year-old Jakob, straddling his amp-on-wheels and riding it downhill two blocks to the Grossmans'.
Eric had the ultimate drum kit, a zillion pieces, with lights and whistles hanging off it. These were boys who came up going to Clash shows, who thrilled to the torn clothes, the physicality -- the blood! -- of a full-bore rave-up. Jake had a sweaty vest of Joe Strummer's fixed up in a frame. . . .
As the night deepens, Jaffee and Richling, both Angelenos, work up a funky pastiche of the music scene there in the late '80s -- goofy days, when hair-metal bands caused a run on Final Net spray, people really said "duuuuude," and Millie the White House dog was writing a best seller. Few kids knew the lyrics to any of Jake's dad's songs. But they could recite all of surfer/slacker Jeff Spicoli's lines from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Life was very . . . Spicoli. And that was light-years away from the '60s urban crucible -- all espresso, grit and tear gas -- that produced Bob Dylan's early work.
The smell of chicken fat suffused the Kibitz Room when Jakob, Rami and the boys played there. Teen spirit, too, in pungent drive-by whiffs of thrift-shop flannels, Mountain Dew and musk. Though L.A. may be known as the land of garage bands, practicing at home was problematic in precision-groomed neighborhoods where security signs bloomed amid the bougainvillea. Jakob and his friends collected egg cartons from supermarkets and tacked them to walls to blunt the noise. Real rehearsal space was too expensive; in clubs it was the overcrowded era of "pay to play." As in: You wanna spot? Sell $800 worth of tickets to your friends and you got it.
Jakob says he didn't have enough friends to sell tickets to. And he'd never dream of asking his parents for cash to rent rehearsal space or buy equipment. It wasn't like asking for college money. The Wallflowers found sanctuary in the hillside basement of a photographer named Ivy, a laissez-faire Hollywood eccentric whose house backed the infamous Whisky on Sunset and featured a bunkerlike room. And there was the Coconut Teaszer, a simpatico club farther east on the strip where they could play without paying. Some nights, by his own admission, Jakob would chicken out. Last minute, he'd call the band and tell them, "You sing. Tell some jokes. I can't do it."
Len Fagan, who still books the Teaszer, kept them on, despite Jakob's no-shows. "They were very young; they weren't drawing too well," Fagan remembers. "But Jake's voice had personality, and I was crazy about some of the songs. Jake looked like any kid -- that knit cap, baggy shorts. He wasn't very animated onstage. But he always had what I call those Ricky Nelson bedroom eyes. He'd make these movements, cringing, singing hard, if he was deep into a song." And, no, Fagan had no idea whose boy he was until months into the Wallflowers' residency there, when, as a CBS scout, he persuaded a company executive to catch their set. But the band members told him they could never sign with CBS -- Jake's dad was on the label. Fagan suddenly understood a few strange things that had happened, like the time a man leapt out of the dark to take a picture of Jakob, who seemed oddly and deeply upset.
"You gotta be kidding" was Jaffee's reaction to learning his band mate's parentage. As the bus pulls off the highway, Jaffee is recalling that he must have played with Jakob every day for nearly two months before the drummer hipped him. Later, Jaffee asked Jakob why he never mentioned his dad: "He said, 'It could have ruined it. Didn't seem like it was necessary.'"
Providence, R.I., the morning after. For the first night in weeks, Jakob has caught 12 solid hours of sleep. And he is feeling great, until he tries to open a hotel window and it smashes down on his finger. He's bleeding on the tablecloth of the meeting room we're in. A nasty black swelling has risen alongside the nail. My road kit has bandages, and he submits to some hasty ad hoc doctoring. He'll have to play tonight, of course -- will finish his set with a nasty tatter of bloody gauze sliding up and down the frets.
It seems an apt if cruel moment to ask about one puzzling aspect of his dogged pursuit, his "chasing this thing," as Jakob puts it. Based on the information he's given me so far, it doesn't add up. He has said he was somewhat of a loner and an academic disaster, ran a dismal D average for three years in one high school before they booted him, was so shy he'd take an F rather than get up in front of 20 kids and give an oral report. At birthday parties and in Little League -- especially when Dad was in the stands -- Jakob and his siblings were always conscious of being stared at, and he hated it.
"Obviously," he says, knowing where this is going, "if you get onstage, there's a piece of you that says, 'I like being looked at.' I haven't found the connection in myself yet."
Jakob says that when he was growing up, the unspoken mantra was "Blend!" The drills were in place before he was born. "If I was in a public place with my dad, and people noticed," he says, "I'd cross the street. Stand next to somebody else. It was instinct. My picture was not to be in magazines. It was unsaid. I understood. It's something I spent 20 years doing a certain way -- then I went completely the opposite. It's hard to figure out how that makes any sense. You find ways to rationalize it -- like it's some character up there, it's not you."
The lure of the music and the road is easier for Jakob to explain: "I saw that stuff for so long, since I can remember. I just can't shake it out of myself. Just like some people who grew up on a farm . . . as you get older, you miss the farm." He is still figuring out how to reconcile the demands of the road with having his own family. His wife left college when their son was born; someday she'll want to go back. They come out with him sometimes, but he knows enough to be extremely protective of them. He will not even utter his son's name. Even though Jakob got through childhood without the phalanx of Glock-toting nannies and security consultants that cosset rock babies today, fallout from the rock & roll life whacked him hard as a child.
He wouldn't say so at first. He had told me that he barely remembered his parents being together before their divorce, in 1977, after 12 years of marriage. "It didn't seem that abnormal," he said. "I don't look back on that era and think, 'Boy, that's when my life went south, when my parents got divorced.'"
Remind him gently some time later that there is some rather unpleasant information out there, that it was all over the papers when Jakob was 7 and 8, and he says, "Of course." Anyone can find those facts. And he can understand the general curiosity, because some of the hell was hammered into Art, pressed into vinyl, and, baby, it sold.
In late 1974, as the marriage began to unravel, Bob Dylan made his "divorce album," Blood on the Tracks. Released in early 1975, it stands as one of Dylan's most brilliant records, a piece of majestic torment. Writer Greil Marcus described it as "the tale of an adventurer's war with a woman and with himself, and a shattering attempt to force memory, fantasy and the terrors of love and death to serve an artistic impulse."
It made great art, but there were five children caught in the emotional flood -- one daughter and three sons the Dylans had together, and a daughter from Sara's earlier marriage. Mercifully, the court records were sealed, but for Jakob, there are other documents that echo those times. "If I hear [an upbeat song like] 'Tombstone Blues,' I'm having a good time with everybody else," Jakob says. "Those other songs on Nashville Skyline and Blood on the Tracks . . . those are my parents talking."
Nashville Skyline was cut in 1969, when his parents were making bread and babies -- Jakob, to be precise -- in Woodstock, N.Y. Jakob says he hears his parents in its love songs and in Blood's accusations and laments. He is certain that although strangers danced and made love to them, those songs comprise a fathoms-deep repository of his family history.
"Sometimes you just write songs for entertainment," he says. "Other times you get a feeling that it really matters. I can tell, in certain songs -- maybe that's where I get my information on those subjects. But I've never had to ask questions about it. I've always kind of left it alone."
Come to think of it, Jakob has never asked his dad whether "Forever Young" was indeed inspired by Jakob's birth. He figures it was a rumor some Dylan freak cooked up, since clearly it's a song written to all well-loved children. And he can always listen to it fondly. Not so with, say, "Idiot Wind," from Blood on the Tracks, a song so rueful and vituperative that it's been compared to the poet Allen Ginsberg's epic "Howl." "Idiot Wind" deals with gossip, backstabbing, shattered faith.
"In a lot of ways, that's the only snapshot I have, because I don't have a great memory of that time," Jakob says. "A lot of random images might strike my memory hearing it. Those are my parents talking, and if I want to go to that place -- I mean, how often do you want to depress yourself? Sometimes it goes in one ear and out the other. Sometimes, depending on my state, those songs can bother me."
It is doubtless to everyone's deep regret that some of the more vivid images of the Dylans' domestic travails became very public information. Some were contained in humiliatingly detailed press releases issued by Sara Dylan's lawyer, Marvin "Palimony" Mitchelson, others in news-wire coverage of a harrowing incident at the children's school, in late 1977, as the custody battle raged.
Though she had temporary custody, Sara Dylan, accompanied by private detectives, attempted to take her children out of class one day, chasing them through school and assaulting a teacher who demanded to see a court order. Sara was charged with battery for the assault, and subsequently was fined $125.
"That was my school," Jakob acknowledges. "I was there. I can honestly say that day is the most sensitive part of my life. I remember it more vividly than almost any other day. I've never really discussed it with anybody. If I talked about it, I'd probably end up with a therapist within a half-hour. It's that deep."
In fact, he says he's never opted for therapy. Asked just how he thinks he did get through it, he's silent for a moment. "The only thing I can come up with is that the kids were and are very close," he says. "And I didn't have to see very many bad things. I was in the back bedroom only being told the good things." And he was so very small: "I was too busy trying to get the cable TV to work or my toys to work."
In Southern California, smack in the middle of the Me decade, divorce was as common and noisy as cornflakes. Plenty of Jakob's friends griped loudly and justifiably, and still do. Not so the Dylan children. "In that sense, [my parents] didn't do a bad job," Jakob says, "because we can all function today without complaining about it."
There is a silence, and by now it's not hard to sense another of those difficult moments. "I'm kind of stuck here between saying I didn't see anything . . ." he says. "And the truth is, I do know quite a lot about it. But it's incredibly painful, and I don't feel it's any of my business. But I'd be lying if I said, 'Jeez, I really don't know.'"
It's information he'd rather not have, and he would never dream of asking his parents for more. Fortunately, things normalized after a harrowing custody dispute. The needs of the children prevailed. Bob Dylan explained it this way: "Marriage was a failure. Husband and wife was a failure, but father and mother wasn't a failure."
They just found an alternative parenting style. "We always had free access to both parents," Jakob says. "I spent half my time with both of them; there was never any time I couldn't be with whichever one I wanted. We were pretty much allowed to do what we needed and wanted to do. I traveled quite a bit. Certainly, going to Europe was more fun than going to school."
He says that his oldest sister, Maria, is "a full-time mom and part-time lawyer"; eldest brother Jesse is a video director; brother Sam is a photographer; and sister Anna is an artist. There are plenty of children, family get-togethers and, yes, doting, amiable grandparents. Both Bob and Sara watched Jakob marry Paige at his mother's Los Angeles home. Also present: Jakob's only surviving grandparent -- his father's mother, Beatrice Zimmerman, whom Jakob adores.
"Jake's family is a huge advantage to him," says T-Bone Burnett. "I'm not talking about the name. I'm talking about the people. They're all great kids. Sara is a beautiful woman, and Bob . . . well, no matter what anybody thinks or writes, he is a wonderful man."
And, adds Jakob, a habitual seeker. When Bob Dylan, born Bob Zimmerman, temporarily turned his back on Judaism and declared himself a born-again Christian, there were interviews, concerts and albums (Slow Train Coming, Saved). "I went through different times," Jakob says of his spiritual upbringing. "During the conversion thing, I went where I was told. I was aware that it mattered to him. He's never done anything half-assed. If he does anything, he goes fully underwater."
By the time Jakob turned 13 -- bar-mitzvah age -- he says, "The wheel had turned. I've been Jewish for most of my life." He says that like those Little League games, his catered coming of age was well-attended. But it was hardly hip. "Stray Cats didn't play. It was like Larry's bar-mitzvah band." Picture the composer of "Like a Rolling Stone" writing a check to some hard-swingin' nebbish in a blue velvet tux. How daunting it must have been to the guy picking out "Sunrise, Sunset" on the accordion to have Bob Dylan in the house.
Jakob says he doesn't usually tell his own band beforehand when he knows that his father is coming to a Wallflowers gig. But he finds it pleasant, never intimidating, to know that Dad is sitting out there in the dark. "My family might be labeled 'dysfunctional' like anybody else's family could be," Jakob says. "But nobody ever beat me. Being hurt, molested, those are real problems growing up. I didn't have any of that. I just had my family -- whatever it was. I'm glad I can take care of myself and get around today and not dwell on any of that stuff. I think it's pitiful, a lot of people blaming their adult lives on their childhoods. You're an adult now; you have the ability to move on."
And so he has. He writes whenever he gets the chance, and if you want to plumb his lyrics for any clues, go ahead, have a ball. Yes, he concedes when asked about one song. "Ashes to Ashes" is an, ah, interesting one:
"Well, you could walk like a stranger, head back into here/Bringing gifts while you act so sincere/Bringing gifts for a boy who's 5 years/Looking for rocks and training wheels/I don't remember you from any of those books/Ashes to ashes and 6 feet under, face-down in a box/Where did you ever learn to treat me like that?"
He remembers what prompted the song, but he'll not offer any help. Nor will he ever be inking the seven-figure deal for the family tell-all. "Nobody's house is heaven," he concludes. "That's what heaven's for."
It's not surprising that most of Jakob's happiest memories have to do with music. In the Dylan homes, musical instruments were "like furniture," so plentiful and top-of-the-line that Jakob cannot remember getting his own guitar. Or needing one. Heading out on tour with his father afforded another kind of information: "I got to see a lot of great people. The rule that I understood was that if he was playing with them, they were great. I waited to figure out why later."
Were there ever any direct tutorials from Dad? Jakob says a funny memory surfaced just the other day.
Road trip: just the old man and five kids, piled in a station wagon heading east from L.A. to Big Bear Lake. Three hours in the car, and all Dad has in the cassette deck is a lone Hank Williams tape. He's driving straight through, keeps punching the tape on auto-reverse; that lonesome cowboy is pinin' and a-twangin' in Eternal Rotation, and 11-year-old Jakob thinks his eardrums will start to bleed. He screams inwardly -- but never to Dad -- Turn it off. Get it off! Until . . . "I remember at the end of it thinking, 'Maybe there's a point to that,'" Jakob says. "I grew up in L.A., and you're just bombarded with images, advertisements. It's very hard, at a young age, to get involved and interested in anything but pop culture. It's a struggle even if you're smart enough to know that's not the important stuff."
It was that car ride that made Jakob stop, if just for the moment, and muse, "Hey, I'm missing it." In hindsight, he thinks it might have been the start of his confessed weakness for "sad cowboy songs." The Dylan boys had a rec room of their own in the house, crammed with a huge record collection, instruments, a stereo, posters. Somewhere in the piles, Jakob found a rockabilly collection. He put it on because the cover was cool. It contained Charlie Rich's "Don't Put No Headstone on My Grave" and the towering "I Feel Like Going Home." The latter remains Jakob's all-time favorite. It is a song of the road, of a monumental weariness and longing. It poleaxed the 12-year-old listening to it in Beverly Hills.
"I'd never heard anything as heavy as that," Jakob says. "It was different than the rock I was listening to. Those two songs just opened everything up." After that, he wasn't afraid to strap himself into the rockabilly, R&B way-back machine. "I remember spending a lot of time trying to figure out who the people I like liked," he says. "I'd see this photo of the Clash playing with Lee Dorsey, and I'd say, 'Who the hell is Lee Dorsey?' You'd listen to that, and it would turn you on to the Meters. Then, 'Who wrote those songs?' Allen Toussaint."
How to process it all? Jakob Dylan says his woeful academic career has left him useless at a computer, ignorant of batch files and e-mail postings. But he's confident that he can manage his information better than most. The most vital data is always readily retrievable and very well-defended.
His own media anti-theft program requires deft and constant Reinvention of Self. Both his parents did it. Sara Dylan began life as a Shirley before she became a model, a mother and the muse whom Dylanologists have identified as any number of Sad Eyed Ladies, madonnas and sirens of song. But no one is more accomplished at brilliant disguise than Bob Dylan. The folkie. The suddenly electric horseman. Jokerman. Or Renaldo. He's an artist; he don't look back.
Says Jakob: "It was Himself that said . . . somebody had asked him, 'When do you become Bob Dylan?' And he said, 'I'm only Bob Dylan when I have to be.' I think more public people should take that point of view."
And so if there are constants in the private, unguarded family albums, there are -- and should be -- multiple Dylan personalities on those album covers, in the films and magazines. In nature, doesn't gaudy plumage help lure predators away from the nest? "He's been reinventing himself for 35 years now, so nobody has any idea what to believe anymore," says Jakob. "I'm sure it's a lot better that way. I don't think anybody does know anything about him, the type of person he actually is. I don't think they should know. I don't think it's going to do them any good."
This is one lesson of the patriarch that Jakob has taken strongly to heart: "When I started getting into this, I realized immediately that if there are a few things inside you that you really cherish and like, you keep them there. They can know everything else. Think they know it. You need to become a master of deception."
Clearly, Jakob has inherited the knack. He can seem to materialize from thin air at times and knows how to disappear just as quickly. He boasts that even when hundreds are surrounding his bus now, he can walk right in without anyone seeing him.
"I do know that fame is not a good thing," he says. "It doesn't benefit you in any way. Personally, I'll never feel that famous, because the kind of thing I've seen is so outstanding. But I've never been anonymous, either. People might not have known who I was, but in thought I always existed."
Sea Bright, N.J., on a bone-chilling early spring night. Yards from where the churning ocean is slapping up against boarded-up beach clubs and clam bars, just past the upended picnic tables, there is -- Passion! Pandemonium! Outside Tradewinds, a yawning, pastel stucco club, the hubbub is backlit by the strobe flashes of a few hundred dueling headlights. The parking lot can't swallow one more custom-detailed Dodge Viper. The Wallflowers have delivered a nice, fat sellout at $17 a head. And it did not hurt that for a few days the word on the street has been "Broooooooce."
Sure enough, Springsteen, who lives five minutes away, showed up for sound check piloting a big black pickup that disgorged all the Wallflowers. This afternoon, he and his wife, Patti Scialfa, invited the band for lunch and a ramble on the couple's huge estate, a self-contained paradise of nickering horses, romping children and endless fields. At sound check, Jakob confesses to this odd, out-of-body moment: "I'm sitting in the back of the bus, having a few beers with Jon [Bon Jovi] and Bruce. I'm holding a guitar, I'm standing with these people trying to figure out chords. . . ." And it felt very, very good.
As it will during the Wallflowers' set and into the encore. Springsteen has shuffled onstage beside Michael Ward, grinning big at the roar of recognition, whanging the faithful Fender jouncing off the thighs of his black jeans. He's playing a nonshowy rhythm guitar, jumping in on the chorus of "God Don't Make Lonely Girls." Jake's song. He'll pass his own guitar to Springsteen for a moment, just so Jakob can say that Bruce played it.
They're screaming, beating on the prissy signs that warn, absolutely no moshing. These are ticket buyers who have seen Bob Dylan only in -- yes -- that damned social-studies book. Whose mothers remember Springsteen when he was playing the Stone Pony down in Asbury Park -- a recent Wallflowers venue. They're bellowing approval of what has been, what will be, but most of all -- and most important -- what is right here right now.
The girls next to me are roundly cursing a club bouncer destroying the sightlines with his massive delts. Now they're pelting him with strawberry Starbursts: Yo! Asshole! We wanna see Jakob! Behind them, a trio of older guys is sending lit cigarettes rocketing like tracer bullets toward that same bullish, obstinate neck: Hey, dipshit! We wanna see Bruce!
When the steroid sentinel finally ducks down, Springsteen and Jakob and -- Hey! Izat Bon Jovi strapping on an acoustic guitar? -- slide into a Sam Cooke classic older than the beach tar that holds this town together. It's late, it's hot, it's a fire marshal's nightmare, and it's dead, solid perfect -- a rock & roll stress test to stir the pulse of this flash-frozen resort town. The beat is strong in Sea Bright; feels like high August on the sweaty dance floor. "Thank you so much," Jakob is saying. "And good night."
In the dank, narrow corridor that passes for a dressing room, there is enough talent to keep a platoon of entertainment lawyers in Testarossas: Springsteen and Scialfa, Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea. And here, just to say hello and take in the show, are Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. As the others inch farther down the line to congratulate Jakob, Springsteen slides into a rickety plastic chair. He is looking at Jakob through the nimbus of smoke and well-wishers. Pale, smiling and exhausted, the younger singer/songwriter has the vulnerable appeal of a marquee Rimbaud.
"You know, he's a very romantic presence up there," Springsteen says. "And he really loves and understands those beautiful songs -- the Smokey Robinsons and all. Those two things . . . well, that's a really great combination."
So Jakob knows?
Springsteen leans his head back and then chuckles.
"Aw, yeah," he says. "He's got the necessary information."
At the fabled quarter to 2, Jakob begins tugging the bulky Army coat over his damp stage clothes as the tour bus shudders to life. He says he can hear that sound beneath any racket, jumps to it like a spaniel to the break of a shotgun chamber. He has hugged his megaplatinum supporters, thanked them, sent them off to their mansions on the hill. Quietly, as the bus is loading for the long night's journey to Toronto -- a nine-hour trip that will torture Jakob's spine -- he wonders aloud: "I guess it went OK. Ya think?"